15 June – Elgar Day 2020

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During the last summer of WWI Sir Edward Elgar could hear the heavy guns in northern France from his cottage at Little Bognor. A few days before his fishing trip on 15 June 1918, the German advance along the Matz River and subsequent counter attack at Compiegne, had resulted in 65,000 deaths. The War had a direct effect on Elgar’s music. His last major work, the cello concerto, was a lament for a lost world, it had an underlying tone of sadness and sorrow. I meant to listen to the piece on the way to Petworth but the rattling Defender shook a fuse loose.

On 15 June 2018, the centenary of Elgar’s first visit to the lake at Little Bognor with a fishing rod, I had reconstructed his day. A hundred years earlier he had caught three Trout but I had struggled to catch a single fish. On 15 June 2019 I had caught two Trout. Surely, this year I would catch three. As in previous years I planned to fish the bottom lake, the top lake had not been built in 1918. Early maps show only a stream running through a field and the old millpond that is now the bottom lake. I arrived in the middle of the afternoon and was pleased to see several fish rising for midges.

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I thought it fitting to use a cane rod and a silk line, not that Sir Edward would have bothered with such niceties. He probably used a float and worms. I strung up Southwell II, “The Chew Valley” with the troublesome silk line and resolved to change the line if it was a handicap.

I took my usual seat on the mossy hump behind the ferns and waited for the fish to show. I didn’t have long to wait, after ten minutes the tippet slipped away and the first fish was hooked. I played it gently, leading it towards the shallows and netting it after a bit of a scrap. It was a great relief not to lose the first fish. It was not long before I lead the second fish into the shallows but the hook pinged out just as I drew the Trout towards the landing net. I didn’t panic, there was plenty of time.

I employed a minor tactic. Hanging the buzzer from a branch of the overhanging tree. Was that cheating ? It took nerve to aim my cast at the branch but all was well. A good fish confidently took the fly and charged off under the trees towards Fittleworth. I couldn’t give line quickly enough and again the fish was lost. After a short interlude a cruising fish took the buzzer and despite several spirited runs, found the back of the net. Two out of four is my historical average.

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The Trout were becoming wary and retreated under the tree canopy further along the bank. I followed and lay down by the old steps. I admired Rex Vicat Cole’s long dead Spanish Chestnut towering over me and managed to tangle the landing net in several bits of tree debris. Fish were circling under the trees and a fish took the buzzer within seconds. It screeched off across the lake and I was sure that it would come unstuck. Despite my antics the fish joined the entangled branches in my net. Hurrah ! I had duplicated Sir Edwards achievement 102 years earlier. After a break I returned to the mossy bank under the Beech trees and waited for another take. The tippet moved twice but I missed both fish. When I did connect the fish made a long run under the trees and avoided capture. That was enough. I drove home happy and celebrated with several glasses of Port. I’m sure Sir Edward would have approved.

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13 June – Rain

I woke at 6:00am, not a good start to a long day. I had four fishing adventures to plan and gardening to do before the forecast evening rain arrived. It was mid afternoon when the Defender scrunched to a halt on the gravel at Little Bognor. I walked up to the top lake and stood in silence as a young blonde Buzzard drifted from the woods behind me, across the lake and into an old Chestnut tree on the far bank. It looked at me for a few minutes, decided I wasn’t a threat, lazily launched itself from the dead branch and continued down the valley in search of a meal. The light was changing from overcast to intense yellow every few minutes and several Trout were sipping down buzzers in the gentle ripple. The scenery was stunning.

I checked the Fish Pass and was relieved to see that, although the level was slightly up, the water was not too coloured. The rain had arrived at just the right time to encourage the sea trout up the river. I started fishing at Keepers Bridge late in the afternoon, there was a light breeze and weird cloud formations over Petworth. The ground was rock hard, most of the rain had soaked into the fields and the river had held a steady level for the last three days. I decided to fish with a nymph and chose my Rio line but took along a small box of dry flies just in case.

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I saved the first few pools for later in the evening and started in the deep run below the Sandy Pool. I found it hard to concentrate. I was day dreaming about the pools higher up the Beat and had no confidence that I would find a fish in the run. I moved to the top of the Sandy Pool and worked hard, exploring the main current and the eddies under the near bank. After thirty minutes a fish swirled and rolled over as it took a lone sedge from the middle of the pool. I worked the black and silver fly down and across and was rewarded with a peck then a tug. I changed to a black and red fly and a few minutes later the fish took but was gone in a couple of seconds.

The rain arrived and for twenty minutes, I sheltered next to the trunk of a large Alder tree below the Old Riffle. I gathered my thoughts and ate a few toffees. I was sure that the fish in the pool above the riffle which I had seen on a previous visit, would still be there. When the rain eased I tried under the trees at the top of the pool with a black and silver fly but had no response. Sixth sense told me that although they had shown no signs, the fish had seen the fly and rejected my offering. I moved down towards the riffle and a fish swirled but turned away from the fly. I swapped to a black and red fly and immediately made contact with a good fish that went airborne and fought hard all the way up the pool to where I could use the landing net. Job done, the pressure was off.

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I wandered back to the pools I had skipped earlier. The Trout that lived just above the Willow Bush had occasionally checked out my carefully presented Mayflies and sedges but more often than not, had simply ignored them. I dropped the black and silver fly into the most likely square yard of water and true to form, there was a golden flash and swirl as the fish turned away. I rested the fish and tried a new pattern resembling a weighted black dry fly which bought instant success. The fish was in fin-perfect condition and I quickly released it from the landing net.

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I walked upstream and down looking for rising fish but although there were millions of midges hatching, nothing gave away its location. The air was warm and damp and the grass was wet so I found a warm sandy patch, sat and waited for a sign. My aching back and shoulders were a sign that I should go home.

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I had enjoyed the soft feel of the Rio line and the silent presentation that it enabled. I was glad not to hear the metallic hissing sound of the silk line sliding through the rod rings. I planned my next fishing trip on the journey home and finished the day with a glass of Port.

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9 June – Silk

The day dragged. Endless chores distracted me from the most important task, preparing for an evening at the river. My new silk line required attention before its next adventure. It had become waterlogged after a few hours during my last trip. I’d taken the line off the reel and left it to dry for several days. I wiped it sparingly with Red Mucilin. I knew the 40 year old tin of gunk would have a use one day. The line was polished, not sticky, but it felt odd. Rough to the touch unlike modern plastic lines.

I left home late in the afternoon and had to resort to arm signals for turning much to the amusement of modern motorists. One of the Defender’s relays  had retired. I parked on the slope at Keepers Bridge and checked that the headlights were still working as I planned to stay until dusk.

The river looked lovely. The water level was up a few inches and the green tint just failed to hide the fronds of streamer weed. Swirling eddies carried midges and small sedge flies under the trees. I was drawn to the deep water below the first Alder, it looked perfect. I fished a heavily weighted Black Spider down and across and after a few casts the line drew tight and a fish thumped deep under the weeds near the bank. The fish stayed deep and fought sluggishly, then became airborne several times. The silk line transmitted the thumps and somersaults directly to the rod unlike stretchy plastic. The fish was about 2lbs and had old scars from a Cormorant which had healed. I released it from the landing net back into the weeds. I was surprised to have caught a fish so soon after arriving. While gathering my thoughts I saw a head and tail rise downstream, just above the Willow bush. I presented a Walkers Sedge carefully, occasionally resting the fish. I persevered but after thirty minutes I had the feeing that the Trout had checked out my fly and rejected it.

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I walked upstream to the Gaps, confident that I would find a fish. While I was admiring the view across the fields towards Perryfields Barn, a fish rose several times in the usual place under the trees. It moved further upstream each time it rose. I tried to cast under the branches with a little flick to curl the line but only succeeded in crashing the rod into the trees and getting tangled. I could have reached that fish with a modern line, the silk tip was not heavy enough. I moved upstream to the next gap. The new growth on the Alders had narrowed the casting slot. I chose a trajectory and fired a cast almost to the far bank wiggling the line as it landed. There was no drag, a good fish turned over on the fly and was hooked. The hook pinged out just as I was reaching for the landing net.

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I sat and watched the pool above the Old Riffle. Another member presented a dry fly to several fish but without success. We passed each other and I walked directly to the Cow Drink where I had an appointment with the resident Trout. I had made a mess of things at our last meeting and I resolved to do better this time. The fish rose several times and I launched a positive cast to position the fly under the tree. The cast was too positive. It was too long and I lined the Trout which didn’t rise again. Nevermind, I’ll meet him again next week.

During my walk back to Keepers Bridge I stopped frequently to gaze at the sunset. The sun was sinking towards the horizon over Midhurst. The subtle pastels and the delicate cloudscape formed a perfect backdrop to the water meadows where a mist was starting to rise. While I waited for the sun to touch the tree line a fish rose in the eddy at the end of the Sandy Pool.  I crept back to the pool and hid behind the rushes. A perfect drag free drift resulted in a rise. The hooked fish screamed off towards the log at the end of the pool. The line whistling through the rings blended with the scream of the ratchet and I immediately thought ‘sea trout’. I put pressure on the rim of the reel and bent the rod into a hoop. I extracted the fish from the streamer weed, it was a feisty wild fish about 1lb. If it had reached the snag and escaped, I would have guessed it to be much bigger.

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On the way back I saw a badger cub, no bigger than a rabbit, ambling along the track. He looked quite cute and had probably come from the set beside the old railway line.

The silk line has advantages over plastic. I can cast accurately and present a fly perfectly but I am not convinced about the front taper. It is too light, I may have to cut it back. I have found the perfect line drier, the bed posts are six feet apart.

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4 June – River Itchen

My last trip to the Itchen had been a steep learning curve and hard work. Since then the ultra fussy Trout would have seen a lot of leaders and flies. The persistent Mediterranean weather was unhelpful, the fish would probably be hiding in the weeds and in the deep runs under the trees.

It was a long journey and I spent most of the motorway miles planning the day ahead. I knew the route, the gate padlock combination and I had fished the Beat twice before. I had carefully sorted my dry flies and wouldn’t have to spend ages poking through boxes looking for inspiration, the patterns were all organised.

Impatience got the better of me and I left the house earlier than I had planned but getting lost in the suburbs of Southampton compensated for that and I arrived at 10:00am. I had a farm shop sausage roll for breakfast and then a short walk to check out the river. It looked good.

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The air temperature was 18 degrees and the north wind required a thin jacket. Harry Plunket Greene complained of the mainly downstream wind in the Hampshire valleys but it would help put a nice bend in the leader. The heavy overcast was excellent, perfect fishing conditions. There were a few Mayfly hatching and more swans than swallows which ensured that the duns made it to the trees.

I had a new silk line to play with. It felt strange and as I began casting on the fishless shallows at the bottom of the Beat, it sounded strange. The high pitched grating conjured  up visions of sawn rod rings. I found it delightful to use, very accurate with a gentle landing. I was in two minds, messing about with a new line on a special day seemed silly but the line deserved a proper workout.

It was going to be a long day and the plan was to break twice, first for lunch and then for afternoon tea. Three fishing sessions on a familiar Beat in perfect weather, what could go wrong ?

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I walked very slowly upstream, pausing to observe each each weed bed and deep run. Several surface dimples failed to produce a take and I only saw one small fish on the gravel. After three hours I reached the seat below the Willow bush and as usual, there was a fish finning under the trees near the far bank. Another fish revealed itself a little lower down. At last, two good fish to target. As I started to cast both fish became agitated and had clearly seen me. One departed upstream but with frequent rests, I managed to get a rise from the remaining fish to a Walkers Sedge. The Trout nosed at the fly, followed it downstream then, with a sneer, casually turned away.

A fish rose above the Willow bush, under the far bank, it looked like the fish I had unsettled earlier. I offered a selection of beautiful imitations but the only movement was away from my flies. I tried a Mayfly with a Teal wing, the fish rose without hesitation and gulped the fly down. It was on for a few seconds. Time for lunch. The silk line had become saturated and developed a heavy sag on the cast so I changed to my usual Rio Chalkstream Special.

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I had another yummy sausage roll and orange juice, no beer or Red Bull. After a rest in the car I returned to the seat by the Willow. There were no fish. The swans were neck-down eating the weed and I wondered if the fish followed them around, feeding on the dislodged nymphs and shrimps. On the bend by the Hawthorn tree a group of about six big Trout hung in the current. I watched them for a long time, cast to the biggest and was surprised when I connected. Everything went solid and I assumed that I was snagged. I put a good bend in the rod and the hook pinged out. I had been patient and observant but the execution was amateurish. I needed another rest.

I consoled myself with a farm shop apple pie and chocolate biscuits. I resolved to maintain my concentration and to work harder. When I returned to the Hawthorn tree the cattle on the opposite bank were charging about and driving the swans off the bank, back into the water. The scene looked like a John Constable painting, the bend in the river reminiscent of ‘The Hay Wain’ without the horse and cart. I stood beside the tree, using the trunk to keep off the skyline. I waited until the cattle had moved away and the colour had settled out of the water before presenting the fly upstream, close under the bank. Success. A fish about two pounds put up a strong fight and eventually dashed away from the landing net.

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Flushed with success I walked along the bank under the trees while scanning the shallows for fish. I stopped on the bend next to the big Willow tree but quickly became surrounded by honey bees from a nest in the split trunk. From slightly downstream, I watched for a rise in the deep run where I had caught so many fish last September. On the first cast another good fish grabbed the fly and charged down into the weedy shallows. It put up a good fight in the strong current and was difficult to net. I explored the stretch of river above the burnt tree but despite a few small rises, I couldn’t get another take. I was suddenly exhausted and returned to the car. The journey home was Red Bull assisted.

The jury is out, deciding the fate of my new silk line. I used it for about four hours before it became water logged. If I cut it in half and treat it with Red Mucilin, the combination of two short lines would last all day.

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29 May – Perryfields

Although the sky was cloudless and the sun intense, the cool easterly breeze kept the humidity down and the temperature was bearable. I had lots of cool drinks and a new bag of toffees, the scene was set for an evening on the river. I parked the Defender on the slope under the trees at Keepers Bridge to assist with a bump start should the electrickery fail. Again.

The ground was rock hard. Only 2mm of rain had fallen in May, a record low for the South East of England. The grass in the water meadows was sparse and failed to hide a small deer grazing between clumps of rushes. The Sussex cattle had not been turned out and I had both banks to explore without distraction.  I paused at the end of the farm track and watched two members in the distance downstream of the bridge. Their presence reinforced my decision to fish upstream towards Perryfields on the south bank and return to the bridge on the opposite bank. A full circuit.

The grass along the edge of the river had been mown to the roots and there was little cover for stalking wary trout. The early evening sun cast long shadows forcing me to back away from the river into the field amongst the sheep. I moved slowly, scanning the water and listening for a rising fish. I waited at all the usual places, willing a trout to swirl at an emerging Mayfly. I stopped at the Old Riffle which had been altered by the winter floods, nothing moved. Sheep skylined behind me and wouldn’t move on, stupid creatures.

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Further upstream I heard the familiar sound of a rising fish, under an impenetrable wall of Alder trees. I knew that I could cover the trout from the opposite bank and marked it down for the return journey. I remembered the shallow run at Perryfields and the monster I had seen in the streamer weeds below the bridge. My optimism was earthed by a three young people picnicking. It seemed a shame to disrupt their enjoyment of a Pimms beside the river in the the soft evening light and I moved further down the north bank towards the Four Alders. I was confident of a take but after casting into the tree behind me, tangling the line in the Cow Parsley and generally mucking things up, I moved on.

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The Cow Drink always holds a fish, the water is not deep but there are lots of tree roots and the soft muddy bottom is ideal for Mayfly nymphs to forage. As I approached the pool a fish rose in the usual place,  below the overhanging branches in midstream. It’s a tricky cast but I knew the angles and the distance from previous encounters. The fish rose again and I got down in the mud and sand, shuffling forwards on my ripstop cotton backside, ignoring the dirt. It would wash off. I chose a small detached body Mayfly spinner with iron-blue wings. A delicate pattern for a choosy wild fish. I was excited because I could picture the rise, the frantic fight and a wild fish in the landing net. The cast was good, the fly drifted perfectly with no drag but nothing happened. I let the fly swing into the side, lifted and cast again, slightly further, towards the far bank. Nothing. The next cast produced an explosive take which I missed. I don’t believe it. Unbee-lieeeve-able !

I rested the fish and lost the fly on the next cast which resulted in an extended rest. I thought the disturbed trout might have taken refuge in the tree roots and drifted a fly under the far bank a few times then switched to my side. The fish swirled under the fly but departed, not to be fooled again that evening.

It was a long walk back. I had worked hard but failed to convert the only opportunity. I’ll try again next week, the fish will still be there.

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